We humans are in a very peculiar condition. We all, generally speaking, experience things. As G. E. Moore once jokingly but very seriously said, ”Here is one hand,” then raises his left, “and here is another.” We sense things. However, our experiences are confined to certain limitations. How do we know this?
All these sorts of questions deal with metaphysics (the “stuff” of the world; what is “real”) and epistemology (theories of knowledge). You may have never heard of these terms, but whenever one engages in a conversation, or better yet, a thought, about what sorts of “things” comprise the universe (metaphysics) and how I have knowledge of those things (epistemology), they are engaging in these two categories.
Let’s be honest. Most people don’t regularly complicate their thoughts in this sort of way. And why should they? Why should I take my opinions of the world and grind them through a sort of scientific-physico-pseudo-thought machine to have a better understanding of myself? This is one naive view of philosophy’s aim, but the complaint is genuine. Why be so complex and technical?
Philosophy’s aim, if it is good philosophy, is to systematize things. Philosophy, like religion, essentially looks to bring sysnthesis between creation and creature in a unique way that differs from religion. Philosophy has done very well over the centuries to discuss the “that-ness” of things in the universe, how we can know them, what the constituents of our knowledge contain, and so on. But of course, this discussion is only successful in synthesis if this relates to the way the universe actually is. And alas, philosophers undergo bickering for what even to mean by “is.” What is is?
The problems of philosophy and the sorts of investigations that have been undertaken to solve them are a very special and curious thing. Consider the problem of God’s existence. Note, philosophers like to call this a “problem” like other philosophical “problems” in the sense that the arguments for either position (”there is no God,” “there is a God”) aren’t conclusive unanimously (Interestingly, my very first philosophy professor thought it important to make this same point and I piggy back it here with a grain of salt). This is, although, a troubling move.
What sorts of questions, arguments, and investigations are we going to need to make in order to solve the “problem” of God’s existence? Let’s suppose we stuck with our reason in order to seek and prove that God exists. How do we start? Are we able to ponder things that are “other-worldly” or strictly speaking, transcendental, and gather truth from them? Let’s examine a position which we can call agnosticism.
If it matters, here is one definition: a from the Greek meaning ‘no’; gnosis from Greek meaning “knowledge” Hence, agnosticism literally means “no knowledge.” This of course needs more to be said. According to one philosophical dictionary:
Agnosticism may be strictly personal and confessional – ‘I have no firm belief about God’ – or it may be the more ambitious claim that no one ought to have positive belief for or against the divine existence. Perhaps only the ambitious version invites an argument.”
The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, 2nd edition, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford University Press: 2005) p. 64. My emphasis.
Consider the “ambitious version.” We might take the famous position of W. K. Clifford who once wrote in 1879, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” This is one criterion of knowledge. Another criterion might be from Carl Sagan who exactly 100 years later in 1979 said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
On the first view, there is moral condition attached: “It is wrong always…” In the second view, a claim is only as good as the evidence to support it. Maybe better said, there is a proportionality of evidence to the kind of claim being made. “God exists” may be an example of an extraordinary claim. Where is the extraordinary evidence to support it?
There are in fact many other views of agnosticism that one could consider. The history of philosophy – and theology – is full of them:
- David Hume’s Faith/Reason distinction (some people miss this)
- Immanuel Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction.
- Contemporary Divine Hiddenness Arguments (J.L. Schellenberg)
- The Dawn of Modernity in Protestant/Evangelical Scholarship and Textual Criticism. 
Conclusion and Practical Application
Agnosticism, to condense my point, has a lot going for it. I’ve dove into this subject for sometime so that this point can be made clear. When asked my view and response to agnosticism, I find it more important to ask questions as to the specific kind of agnosticism rather than to scope out arguments and destroy where I see fit. Agnosticism is always backed by a theory of knowledge.
Question this. Let it be explained as plainly as they like in their terms. Find what terms they deem most suitable and comfortable to their understanding and for the sake of the conversation. Let definitions and concepts be made clear. Don’t wash-over the important metaphysical points but take all matters into consideration. I think with agnostics you’ll either find (i) a personal admission about their beliefs about God or (ii) a limitation that they can’t see past. Agnosticism not only implies a theory of knowledge but also includes the concept of limitation.
By “limitation” I mean that the agnostic looks to some data or phenomenon to suggest that our knowledge cannot exceed, reach, or discover certain truths. For example, humans are fallible. We tell lies, we can be mistaken, we are finite. How can finite, fallible beings have knowledge of the infinite? How could you claim certainty about what happens after death when no one knows? Therefore, we are limited to some things that we can know.
Agnostics can be challenged on these grounds because philosophy matters here. Good philosophy, that is. A good philosophy as mentioned earlier tries to relate the “stuff” of the world to way things actually are. What sorts of things are in the world? Let’s suppose we were agnostic on the issue of God’s existence because these limitations on our knowledge exist. What sorts of other things would we be agnostic about given these limitations of knowledge? Would we be agnostic about the existence of the soul as well? Is my mind separable from my body? Are there minds other than my own?
Genuinely existential questions – or questions about existence – don’t have to be technical or trivial. There is an interprise of thought or discussion which helps elaborate on how we think of God and ourselves. This is philosophy. Philosophy has unfortunately, in recent times, reached such an academic stature that a lot of the proceeding and relevant conversations happening in the philosophy of religion as we speak are highly technical and contain unnecessarily rampant intelligent vocabularly.
The fact that academic philosophy has taken this course does not lay on the fact that discourse – dialogue, monologue – relates to how the world is, since we are partakers of it. Some participants (philosophers, theologians, etc) have been very helpful and insightful discussing the divine existence and how we might have knowledge of it. Yes they are technical, but philosophy seen as a kind of “Great Conversation” shows you that there is development taking place, even today.
Agnostics to my charge are not partaking in good philosophy. If one takes a stance on the ambitious version of agnosticism, saying something to effect of “knowledge of God is impossible,” or “no knowledge of God is possible in this life” I am always inclined to ask as to how they know this. After all, this is not a personal admission but a judgement about reality insofar as our knowledge is included in our understanding of “reality.” What this means is that the agnostic already has a preconceived view of knowledged which needs argument. Why is knowledge of the infinite impossible? Is divine revelation impossible? If so, why?
The agnostic takes a stance on all these positions – yes, a theory of knowledge and a view of Scripture – which presents itself as an eventual burden. To finish with Gary Habermas,
If a stronger position is taken… then this assertion assumes its own burden of proof. Now we are justified in asking why this stronger agnostic position is held. In this case, both the agnostic and theistic assertions about the resurrection should be prepared to evidence their positions. The agnostic position is not established simply by the claim that we can go no futher. How or why should the conclusion halt at precisely that point?
Gary Habermas, “Resurrection and Agnosticism” in Reasons for Faith (2007), pp. 286-287.
- For David Hume I’m thinking of Ronald Nash’s The Word of God and the Mind of Man (1982) that provides some background to theological agnosticism stemming from David Hume’s distinction of reason and faith.
For Immanuel Kant there are several philosophical commentaries or textbooks one can see for a discussion on Kant’s agnosticism. One of my favorite’s was Norman Geisler’sIntroduction to Philosophy (1980) chapter on agnosticism that included his analysis of Kant. Also, his latest edition of Christian Apologetics (2013) elaborates on this in detail.
Consider J.L. Schellenberg’s Wisdom to Doubt (2007). This book elaborates on his views of religious skepticism and the various types of divine hiddenness arguments. It is highly technical, so armchair philosophers beware.
See Gary Habermas’ essay “The Resurrection and Agnosticism” in Norman Geisler and Chad Meister’s Reasons for Faith (2007)